Let’s talk about the mechanisms of anxiety.
I want to share this with you so that you can get a good hold on what’s happening when you or a loved one starts to feel out of control with anxiety symptoms.
I used to think that it as ‘all in my head’, and while there is some truth to that, there is A LOT more than that.
Do you ever hear people tell you to ‘relax’, or ‘don’t worry about it’, or ‘you take things too seriously’? I have. And I don’t like it. Like there’s an easy fix to the onslaught of physical and mental sensations that come with anxiety. In the moment, it’s very difficult to talk yourself out of what’s going on.
That’s why we’re going to start taking this anxiety stuff step-by-step and not whitewash over it. In this week’s post, I’m going to give you the basic neurology (don’t get scared…..I said ‘basic’ and I’ll get you through it, I promise) and physiology of the cascade of chemicals and nervous system changes that occur when you encounter real or perceived threats.
By ‘real’ threats, I’m referring to:
- that boss who has unrealistic deadlines and is breathing down your neck everyday
- rush hour traffic
- your baby crying
- the person who is yelling at you that you took their parking space at the store
- that dog rushing at you while you’re out on your walk
- (and, yes, these have all been very real ‘threats’ that I’ve dealt with)
‘Perceived’ threats might include:
- the financial pressures of everyday life
- that difficult mother-in-law that JUST WON’T LET UP and let you run your family YOUR way
- an article you read about yet another shooting at an American school
….you get the idea here.
So let’s dig in.
When you encounter a real or perceived threat, your mind immediately reacts to what it sees/hears/feels and interprets it. If there’s a giant dog with teeth bared and haunches raised running toward you, that’s a very real threat that your mind needs to deal with, without taking time to think. It immediately sends signals to your brain which, in turn, sends information to your adrenals (we call this the ‘HPA Axis’ which is short for ‘Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenal Axis’).
Your adrenals are your ‘fight-or-flight’ glands. They are located on top of your kidneys (located in your lower back) and will send adrenaline and cortisol into your blood stream.
What’s important to know here is that that whether there’s an actual threat, like the dog, or a perceived threat like the looming catastrophe of impending doom of global warming, your body wants to jump in to do something about it…..like NOW!
All of your blood flow is sent to your muscles, heart, and lungs so that you have every chance at running away from that dog or staying to fight it. It goes into survival mode. That blood is shunted away from rational thinking, digesting, and reproduction.
Your brain isn’t thinking about how to reason with the dog or what happened on ‘The Office’ yesterday and your stomach is going to pause on digesting that sandwich you ate for lunch because it goes into life-saving mode.
All your brain cares about is protecting you and it will do everything in its’ power to get you out of harms’ way.
And let’s say that these real and perceived threats are occurring multiple times a day. In the world of Psychology, they talk about ‘little t’ and ‘big T’ traumas. Meaning that most of us are encountering little ‘t’s’ throughout our lives and then the ‘big T’s’ such as divorce, loss of a job, loss of a loved one, etc. Both little and big T traumas put us into that stress state.
In the book ‘Burnout’ by the Nagoski sisters, they talk about ending the stress cycle and give suggestions like walking, breathing, laughing, dancing, gardening to complete the response to stress you’ve dealt with so that your body doesn’t stay in the heart-palpitation-increased-respiratory-rate state.
If you don’t complete that stress cycle, your body starts to create a limbic system trauma loop. The work of Annie Hopper, Joe Dispenza and so many more healers and researchers have shown that your brain can start a new wiring system that can keep one it that stress response. Over many occurrences of stress without breaking the cycle, your body can develop a faulty response to stress by staying on high alert, just in case there’s a new threat because, hey, if a dog attacked once, it can happen again, so it’s important to be prepared, right?!
After years of small traumas and a few big traumas, it might seem a little easier to understand why one might get stuck in the stress cycle, leading to anxiety, depression and chronic pain. If there’s no pause from hypervigilance, it’s depleting for your adrenals, muscles, and immune system. Whatever fires together, wires together and becomes a new habit, even if that ‘habit’ is a barely perceived, low grade stomach tightness, muscle tension and increased heart rate.
If you’re on high alert about dogs, even if it seems irrational seeing that mini poodle come your way, you may tense up, feel your heart rate elevate and respiration increase. And this may become a pattern, leading to anxiety.
How to start changing those patterns
First off, if you don’t experience anxiety, seriously, hats off to you. You’re one of the 12 people I know who don’t feel it. And I hope that you continue to take care of yourself by breathing, staying aware of your body and completing the stress cycle anytime you come into contact with those inevitable stressors
For those of you who are living with anxiety, whether it’s ever-present or off-and-on, there is help! Don’t despair, thinking that living with it or perscription meds are the only answers (disclaimer: if you are currently experiencing anxiety and feel that you’re not able to get ahold of it, please consult your healthcare practitioner for help. I tell all of my patients that you need to take care of yourself, even if it’s a stop-gap until you can find healing).
Healing anxiety, depression, chronic pain, fatigue require a multi-pronged approach. There is no one answer for anyone for any condition. It requires attention, patience, curiosity, and willingness to make life changes. Most likely, none of this came on overnight and it’s not likely that it will disappear that quickly.
For now, I’m going to share a few things that have helped me over the years with my healing journey.
- Dr. Joe Dispenza’s meditations, along with his book: Becoming Supernatural have been uber-helpful with the worry, pressure and stomach tightness I used to experience all the time for many years. I purchased his course and practiced the work and meditations for about 2 years. The link above is to an interview with him that inspired me to purchase the course.
- The Dynamic Neural Retraining System with Annie Hopper took me to the next level. I was still having anxiety-related sleep issues and muscle jerking throughout the night and this program helped me within 2 days of practicing it.
- Moving away from anxiety-producing relationships. I thought I needed to stay on good terms with all people and lived this philosophy my whole life, until about 6 years ago. Mean people are mean and I don’t (and you don’t) need them in my life. If there are people in my life who are constantly chaos-producing, anxiety-invoking for me, they’re gonners. This has pretty much been the biggest game changer with the anxiety. Addendum: EVERY relationship has it’s ups-and-downs and I don’t expect every interaction to be filled with rainbows and butterflies, but if I lost nights of sleep over certain people, I made this my barometer to make the decision to move along.
- Long Deep Breathing 15 minutes a day, sometimes 2-3 times a day.
The main goal here is what I said above….. stay curious, keep breathing, and remember that anxiety, depression, chronic pain, insomnia and many other health conditions are a result from a trauma loop that you have the ability to break and recreate.
It takes effort, time and tenacity to heal, but it can heal! I’m testament to that.
I’m here to support you!
Remember that healing is a journey, not a destination. Every little step you take toward your own healing, becomes a step toward empowerment and making a life for yourself that you can love and live freely.
I’m here to help you along that journey and appreciate the opportunity to be a part of that.
Always, in healing,